Martin Naylor

In Martin Naylor’s work meaning emerges from the gaps between words, objects, and paintings. His has been a lengthy pursuit, with a repertoire of symbols—a chair, a knife, a black cloth, the outline of a house, an embracing couple—employed time and again in a series called “Between Discipline and Desire,” 1977–86, so long a series by now that sub-, even sub-subtitles are employed to distinguish separate works. The stiffness of the drawing; the clumsy translatorese of the sentences, with their jerky, unliterary quality at odds with their poetic intent; and the insistent disjunction between parts of works and the genres of the parts permit the viewer only hints of strain and mental turmoil. The theme is the relationship between men and women, seen as a “battle of the sexes”; these are dispatches from the front, distanced, as if memory had intervened. If Naylor’s paraphernalia resemble a set of courtroom exhibits, each separate work forms part of a trial, with the artist as the accused as well as judge and jury. But the series seems never-ending and fact and fiction are confused as the trial continues. Each work topples into the next, crime and punishment are forgotten, and the entire enterprise defines the predicament of the artist himself or a surrogate figment of his imagination. Naylor is psychoanalyzing himself.

“Between discipline and desire” lies the territory he must encompass. Is that a drawing of a man crying and a woman comforting him? Or is he seizing a woman struggling to escape? Could it be a couple in love? Passion defies visual translation; it is the dissipation of art, a state of frenzy directed at a single object. Either the couple’s faces are hidden or they are consuming each other. Desire means loss of identity. Fear of emasculation haunts these works, where piles of knives left on floors are gradually organized into the outline of a house. Are domestic situations maintained only by means of fear and exclusion? The very act of picturing—taking elements from the outside world and arranging them on the wall—constitutes another type of organization, a halting of a process or a memorial. It needs covering, like a shroud, or forgetting entirely; that empty chair can never be filled by an absent lover. Is emptiness a quality? Perhaps it is only the means whereby other things are defined. If it cannot be evoked, it can still be claimed and possessed: my solitude, my ungovernable need—ungovernable because the rod of discipline (a frame, a painterly stroke) so easily becomes a scourge or a masochist’s whip. Religion: the excuse to grant oneself permission to find ways of adoring an absent being too vast to confine, whose myth is of cyclical birth and death and rebirth, who can deliver the lover into an eternity of empty adoration and vain hope. Witchcraft: the realization that religion renders one powerless and the attempt to regain that lost power. Loneliness: unsatisfied desire for the loved one, unsatisfiable desire for the loved one, invocation and abandonment of both black and white magic. Psychoanalysis: permission to dig a blade repeatedly into an open wound to keep it fresh, to tend it like the grave it is. Art: see “Psychoanalysis.”

“Pavane,” one Naylor subtitle, is a slow, dignified dance. His work—a parade of shadows and absences, hollowness and solidity, and one replacing the other—is a ceremony, a formal acknowledgement of unalterable emotional states and (perversely) a celebration of them, a demonstration of the gestures of making, ritually rehearsed with a limited number of “objective correlatives,” not symbols exactly, which escape the realm of the maker too completely. Naylor’s works can only be understood sequentially. Separately they evade analysis because what they mean does not reside in the object left after the ceremony of making. Are they failures, then, or are they about failure? In Naylor’s earlier work photographs of a desired figure passing through a room—Liv Ullman seen during the shooting of a Bergman movie—were canceled and cherished, like excuses for a continuing love letter. Now, Naylor would regard love letters as the confections they are. These days, the aim is honesty. In a way, they are too honest in recognizing that the very act of making is a necessary fiction, with its own rules and toys and too little hope of the truth’s ever emerging. The charge of obscurity is often aimed at Naylor. On the contrary, his pavanes are too naive. Sheer egotism—masochism, perhaps, in the form of sabotaged narcissism—and an endless capacity for displaying self-pity have allowed Naylor to rethink what art is and does. Has a surplus of feeling destroyed his work? Or has he strayed too far from acceptability? Perhaps separate works do not matter at the end of the day.

Stuart Morgan